"Melinda and Melinda" starts with four friends arguing over dinner if life is in its essence comic or tragic. One of them begins telling a story and two of the friends shape it in a comedy and in a drama respectively. The movie is therefore half comedy, half drama.
The movie seems to ask: is it possible to tell the same story in both tragic and funny ways? And then, is it possible for any real life event to be interpreted both as funny and sad?
“Melinda and Melinda” seems intent upon answering “yes”. If you pay attention, you can see how thorough Woody was in matching the two stories. The details, circumstances and dialogues are indeed the same in both versions of the story. There is only one small difference in the stories: Melinda, the main character, is not the same.
“Tragic Melinda” reacts and interprets everything around her in a much different way than “comic Melinda”. Even though all the other details match, they are two different people. “Tragic Melinda” even looks for more drama in her life. Certain aspects of her life are indeed out of her control, but others do seem to be her own doing like over-drinking, smoking, self medicating, dumping the stable guy for a bohemian and so on. “Comic Melinda” doesn’t make such risky choices.
In the end, it is not so much a difference in genre or in the situations themselves. There would be no intrinsically tragic or comic situation, but it is all about the characters.
Aristotle’s definition of comedy and tragedy makes perfect sense here. Comedy portrays characters as worse than they really are, so we can actually laugh at their expense. Tragedy has noble characters portrayed as better than in real life, so we take pity on their fall.
Notice the choice of actors: Will Ferrell, Steve Carrell and Amanda Peet appear in the comic version, Chloe Sevigny in the tragic version.
But in the scenes with the four friends, our expectations are subverted. Ironically, the drama director is more easy-going and laughs in funerals, and the comedy producer is the closest to nihilism and a lack of belief in life (just like Woody Allen himself seems to be).
Since it is all a matter of characters, the question is which version you prefer. I prefer the tragic story, despite my general dislike for the actress’ performance. I tend to have sympathy for tragic characters and a bigger interest in their stories.
Plus, at least in “Melinda and Melinda” the tragic dialogues and situations ring true to everybody, they are universal, while the funny bits and jokes depend much more on personal taste. An example: in a very sad scene towards the end of “tragic Melinda’s” story, her friend says on the phone: “Let’s face it. Melinda is one of those people who will always need help.” (I got goose bumps just by typing that.)
The comic parts are much more subjective. For starters, all Will Ferrell’s lines come out of Woody Allen’s mouth and not from the character’s. The problem is that Woody Allen can play Woody Allen but Will Ferrell can’t. The scene where they are playing basketball and he says he didn’t change podiatrists not even when his podiatrist operated on the wrong foot is extremely funny - because of the joke not the way he delivers it. It would come out naturally from Woody but not from Ferrell. By the way, this strangeness happens throughout the movie in the literary references that the characters use in a dialogue. It’s hard to imagine Ferrell quoting Chekhov on a French bistro.
Going back to the question the movie poses, it’s not really a matter of looking at situations and asking if they are intrinsically sad or funny. It’s much more of a matter of which Melinda you are.
Which story did you prefer – tragic or funny? What about the actors' performances, specially Ferrell's and Radha Mitchell's?